“I could never paint in the south of France,” says Michael Bennett. It is an autumn day in Frome, Somerset. A storm in the small hours has left the town and its wooded valley strewn with leaves and speckled with puddles. As we walk from Bennett’s Victorian Gothic villa to lunch at the Black Swan Arts Centre, the clouds thicken, diffusing the sun into a watery yellow from Parkes Bonington. The wind is up. Another storm is coming tonight.
“My favorite painting is Hadleigh Castle,” Bennett says. “To me, Constable is the greatest English painter. I love the air, the weather in Constable: there’s such physicality.”
Bennett (b. 1948) and his wife Celia moved to Frome from London twenty years ago. In the Eighties and Nineties, while Britain’s art schools were handing out video cameras and closing down their drawing studios, Bennett resisted the great de-skilling and trained several generations of oil painters at Saint Martin’s School of Art in London. Today, Bennett is in a “season of mists and mellow fruitfulness.” He has weathered the YBA bubble and the storms of fashion, and is modestly surprised to find his work is more in demand than ever.
Bennett, these days, is an English Romantic landscape painter, but he is more modern than the minimalists and installation artists. They, for all their studied edginess and digital gloss, have yet to move beyond the limited vocabulary of the Sixties. Bennett’s paintings, however, are ahead of their time. In the mid-twentieth century, neo-Romantics like Paul Nash, Graham Sutherland, and John Piper used European developments like Cubism and Surrealism to revitalize the visionary tradition of English Romanticism. Bennett has infused his work with wider influences: the Abstract Expressionists, whose adaptation of Cubism and Surrealism to native conditions paralleled the work of the neo-Romantics; and Chinese landscape painting, in whose mists and flatness the Western eye sees anticipations of Romanticism and the Asian influence on French modernism. He has followed his eye, not fashion, and combined his influences into a fresh, luminous, and authentic modern English.
“My light has changed dramatically,” Bennett reflects over lunch at the Black Swan. “When I was a young painter, I was totally in love with American painting—its grandeur, its ambition. In the Seventies, I made a pilgrimage to see the Clyfford Stills at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo. They just blew me away. Before that, though, when I had left college and was starting to find myself, I went around Europe for two weeks with a friend and just bathed myself in Rembrandt, Vermeer, and Corot. When I came back, I had to change my paintings completely, because that was what moved me. It moved me more than American art, perhaps because I am English. I had to be honest in my responses. But I loved American art and I also liked Americans—the ambition of Abstract Expressionism.”
He leans forward with enthusiasm. “Do you know Barnett Newman’s Vir Heroicus Sublimis? It’s one of his great paintings, a big, eighteen-feet red picture with thin vertical divisions. I’ve always loved that picture.”
Frome sits at the bottom of a well-watered basin. The town boomed during the Industrial Revolution. Bristol, once England’s entrepôt for American trade, is nearby. Turner’s Rain, Steam, Speed (1844) depicts the birth of the Great Western Railway, which connected London and Bristol (and still does on a good day). The sides of Frome’s valley are littered with red brick mills and villas in the tawny local stone. The urban gentry never left, so the recent influx of artists and the opening of places like the Black Swan is not, strictly speaking, gentrification, but a repurposing, a revival of Frome’s old links to the world beyond the valley.
Bennett works across the road from the Black Swan. His studio is on the top floor of the Frome Museum Building a former Victorian workingman’s library: one Ruskinian ideal repurposed into another. The studio has the usual orderly chaos of the painter’s workshop. Everything is in its place, but everything is covered in paint and perfumed with turpentine. The high-ceilinged studio has ample northern light. Bennett likes to paint in series—several blocks of medium-sized canvases hang on the eastern and western walls in various stages of development. The entire southern wall of the studio is filled by a triptych, Requiem.
Each of Requiem’s canvas panels is 5 feet 6 inches wide by 6 feet 6 inches tall. Their effect is encompassing and meditative, a vista of mists and mountains, of uncertain distances and infinite crevasses. The vertical striations that weave across the surface of the three canvases seem closer to pillars on a balcony than to trees—abstract obstacles standing between the viewer and the field of vision, somewhere between Abstract Expressionism and Corot’s Solitude, in which the vertical division of a tree trunk splits the light on either side.
The central panel has the flattened perspective of traditional Chinese painting. The deeper perspectives of the side panels fall away as if into valleys. On the left panel, a yellow passage snakes upwards like a mountain path, to resonate in the top right corner. On the right, pointed Alpine firs are so green as to evoke black. The outer margins of both panels are anchored in dark-green foliage. Thus the side panels push the landscape of the central panel outwards, towards the viewer, while holding the three panels in tension.
“It’s a dialogue with the whole tradition of landscape painting.” Bennett says. “It’s got hints of modernism in the poles, going from top to bottom like Barnett Newman, but it’s also very Oriental. It’s a marriage of traditions, really.”
Bennett is a painter of unabashedly spiritual purpose, but there is no overstatement, dogma, or melodrama in Requiem. “The columns are like barriers,” he says, “The columns are quite ambiguous, I want that mystery.” Without switching gear, Bennett turns from describing an affect to exposing the technical procedures of its creation. “The columns stop the landscape from going too far back, too. They break up the landscape and stop it being too sentimental.” The canvases are spaced to create an austere counter-rhythm of negative space. “Bizarre things happen if you make them equidistant—the gap between the paintings is the same width as the columns—but I want the whole to be streamlined, to have the verticality that offsets the cinematic effect.”
The narrowness of the spaces creates a sudden impression of plunging forwards into the vertices of the horizontal plane. It is as if we are passing through the landscape and into a different vision, of spiritual disorientation and reorientation. The eye traces passages of turbulence and poignance, struggle and contemplation.
“Are we not perpetually falling?” Nietzsche asked in The Gay Science (1882). “Backwards, sideways, forward in all directions? Is there any up or down left? Are we not straying as through an infinite nothing?” The eye falls into the crevasses and white-outs of Bennett’s landscape, but the landscape and its potentialities are coming towards us. Nietzsche spent his last summers at the Alpine village of Sils Maria in the Engadine Valley. Sudden fogs pour down the valley even in summer, isolating the villages, erasing landmarks, and disorientating the eye. In the 2014 film Clouds of Sils Maria, an actress (Juliette Binoche) who is lost in the wood of middle age, returns to Sils Maria to retrace her early life. When the fog arrives, turbulent and static, it stills her existential fears.
“I love things dissolving, and shrouded in mist,” Bennett reflects. “I don’t know why, it’s some sense of becoming or disappearing. I want the canvases to be quite still. Not like the physical painting of Soutine and Rembrandt: I don’t want them to be gestural. They breathe, there’s a lot of air in them, and I love the tranquility in them. What’s more important is the spirituality of them. I think they’re very quiet, contemplative paintings. They’re devoid of struggle, they look at the inevitable, and there’s no hint of topographic notation.”
Does the topographic notation of the English landscape tradition reflect an empirical mentality, needing to define and hold on to a terrain long parceled out and measured?
“I’m not holding on to it, I just want to embrace it.”
Close up, the brush work is ethereal but vigorous, light but full of downward movement. How, I ask, does Bennett get this lightness of effect?
He laughs. “With a bloody great big brush!”
“No, just scumbling,” pointing to the left canvas, “you get hints of deep space and a verticality due to the images being washed away.”
How does he sustain the effect of lightness in dark passages, like the foliage at the outer margins?
“The dark goes on last and is lightened by the blue-grays that are underneath, when they’re still wet. The central pillars have a quiet elegance and they’re framed by these dark landscapes. They’re almost like angel’s wings.” The sense of religious reorientation is inescapable, and not least because the triptych format returns to the religious art from which Western painting derives.
Requiem has yet to be exhibited. “It’s museum-scale art,” Bennett says, “I can’t see it sitting in someone’s house. I’ve been painting for sixty years, I want to encapsulate all my experience. This is the nearest I’ve come to putting all my loves and art-making into one series of pictures. In my ideal world, I’d make another six or seven canvases that would go all the way around the viewer. I’ve not finished with this series yet.”
For more information on Michael Bennett’s paintings, see www.michaelbennettartist.com